We have a deeply ambivalent relationship with uncertainty. In part, we are hard-wired to like clarity, and black-and-white world-views are as tempting as they are dangerous. So when we are faced with situations where there are no clear answers or easy choices, we find ourselves squirming in acute discomfort.
This situation is made worse when we have an audience. If individuals wrestle with the discomforts of uncertainty, groups struggle mightily in the face of an ambiguous and unclear issue. This is ironic, because groups should theoretically be able to tackle and master situations of uncertainty much more readily than a single person. A group has a natural theoretical advantage of diversity of expertise, experience, personality and mindset. This should enhance the ability of a group to make better decisions.
Unfortunately, while groups should benefit from diversity, they often don’t. Rather than leveraging the breadth of expertise and insight, they instead tend to focus on the lowest common denominator. Left to their own devices, groups focus on what’s common and dismiss what is different or controversial. The result is a decision that everyone can accept (or, very often, a decision to defer or not to decide) rather than an effective, rich and innovative outcome that builds on everyone’s strengths and abilities. Those decisions that do result are also very often sub-optimal and ineffective.
Recent research identified surprising insights into what does improve group effectiveness. In particular, studies that were recently discussed in the New York Times highlighted three key factors: empathy and emotional awareness in the group, equal participation of group members and the number of group members that were female. While that last finding has been somewhat controversial to some (not least of whom were the researchers themselves) it is largely thought to be a product of women tending to be better at reading the emotional state of others. In essence, it is a doubling-down on the first factor in the study.
What also influences group decision making is having a process by which to work through the problem (and committing to actually following the process). The structure of an effective process of problem solving provides guidance and a sense of ‘certainty’ to the approach in the face of an outcome that is anything but clear.
I was reminded of this in the past few days while facilitating a strategic planning session with a senior management team. Faced with a challenging question posed to the whole team, there was a resistance to explore and discuss. There was anxiety, discomfort, and a reluctance to directly address the issue. In small groups tackling a specific component of the question, discussions were much more productive, and the smaller groups willingly shared their candid observations and insights with the larger group. The truth came into the room, but it took compartmentalization and breaking the problem into smaller chunks to get there.
Larger groups can also work through challenging discussions, but a clear process of problem solving (and one ideally tuned to the dynamics of having a larger number of voices) becomes critical. The problem or issue needs to be clearly defined. There needs to be focus, commitment and engagement on the part of all players (and disengagement and distraction quickly derails constructive discussion). There need to be clear steps to defining the problem, identifying alternatives, exploring the implications of those alternatives and landing on an approach that the group can buy in to.
The key to successfully tackling large, complex problems—particularly in groups—is defining appropriate and reasonable structure for the group to follow. This is a key facilitation challenge. The facilitator also needs to be comfortable with the ambiguity of the question, and comfortable with the process of arriving at a solution. They need to guide the group, challenge them on blockages, sense frustration, elicit contributions and keep multiple options in play. Core to this is trusting that the process will arrive at a solution. Forcing the process or presupposing the outcome is not effective facilitation; it is bullying. A range of outcomes is not only possibly, but likely. It is faith and comfort with the process that allows these outcomes to be explored effectively and honestly.
Uncertainty is likely never going to be completely comfortable. What is essential to recognize is that this discomfort can be managed and mitigated. Doing so requires first recognizing the uncertain nature of the problem being faced, identifying the type of uncertainty being faced and selecting a process of problem solving that is appropriate and realistic. Navigating towards complex and difficult outcomes is much more attainable and manageable when we have a process that we trust, and trust in the process.